Really, I just wanted to post the picture. Henry Bromell died nearly a week ago, and this is what he was like, as a writer and a guy: you can kind of get it, in the photo. I was friendly with him for many years, though I wouldn't presume to say we were close, but he made you feel close to him - it was part of his charm. He didn't have a barrier, was the way a mutual friend of ours put it.
He did, of course, have barriers. There was a palpable darkness at the core of his writing, and this wasn't a side of Henry that surfaced in social encounters. No, and what you saw - in the outpourings of love and appreciation that came on Facebook, in tweets, and in the press after his death - was a mirror of the generosity, the kindness, the good-humored openness of spirit in Henry. He was the quintessence of mensch.
He's most well known these days for his work on Homeland, but before that, there was Homicide, and further back, Northern Exposure, a unique show that was very Henry in its bemused and loving take on the peculiarities of human interaction. His darker side was evidenced in the novel he wrote, Little America, and his quite good, unjustly overlooked feature, Panic.
My favorite work of Henry's has yet to be produced: Fellini Black & White, a marvelous evocation of the great Italian director's 1957 visit to America with his lovelorn wife. There are images and poignant, funny moments in that screenplay that have stayed with me for years: an inopportune attempt to put the top down on a speeding vintage convertible, and the wind ripping the top loose, the canvas flapping and tumbling backwards into the night; Fellini watching the bobbing dark shapes of California surfers in the rising sun. Thank you, Henry, for putting these moments in my head and my heart.
When I talked about Henry with my friend the editor Cindy Mollo, she characterized her months working on Panic as a kind of private film school graduate course. Henry was a natural teacher. I brought him to one of my classes as a guest speaker, and he regaled the students with stories and insights that kept them rapt for an hour and a half. When his alloted time was up, I couldn't resist one more query: Hey, Henry - What makes a good scene?
Henry seemed briefly stymied, as if no one had put this question to him before. Then on the spot, he came up with what he called his "Big Five" questions regarding a scene. I scrawled them on the back of a postcard (Union City Drive-In, 1993, Photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto), and I've been using them in classes ever since. This is not due to their unique profundity - this is 101 stuff, for sure - but because they're so simple and useful. And really, over time, I haven't come up with a sixth.
Henry Bromell's "Big 5" Questions to Ask of a Scene:
Have we seen this scene before?
Is there a conflict?
Is there a subtext?
Does it go from A to B (have a shape)?
Is the language and tone interesting?
I've found that asking these questions of any scene one writes is a tonic, especially when something isn't working, or when one senses that the scene could be stronger. There's clear thinking in the Big Five, and they've proven to be an effective gateway to other explorations and discoveries. The first, for example, instantly causes the writer to step back from the page and think wider, deeper, for implied in the question is a provocative subtext, i.e. If we have seen this scene, what are you doing to make your version of it memorable?
I pass Henry's questions along to you as another tool for your toolbox, and in homage to a man whose job it was to create good and great scenes, and who did it so, so well, over a rich and vibrant career. I'm happy that I got to know the guy, and I'm happy to think that those of you who didn't, can get to know him though his work. It's already living on.